Tag Archives: landscape

Novelty and the landscape

There is a definite joy in walking somewhere I have never walked before, and seeing a view that is wholly unfamiliar to me. For people seeking a relationship with the land, I think the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner is very much part of the attraction. However, there’s a risk in thinking of this relationship in terms of the exotic and the unknown. If we’re too focused on the quest for novelty and beauty, we can miss what’s around us.

Landscapes change all the time – with the seasons, and less happily, with human interventions. A person doesn’t need a large number of places to walk to have every chance of experiencing something unfamiliar. I could spend my whole life exploring just the county I live in, and I would never run out of new things to see.

There’s a quote I’ve seen a number of landscape writers refer to: “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.” (Patrick Kavanagh). I would say that the same is true of Druid experience. Skimming over surfaces in search of excitement is fun, but it’s not Druidry. It is the depth of your encounter with a landscape that changes it from a tourist experience to a spiritual experience.

Depth of experience takes presence and attention. It calls upon a person to immerse themselves in what is around them, to step beyond their thoughts and into the physical world. You have to show up without assumptions or an agenda. I find that in taking an interest in the small details of a scene, I am guaranteed to always see something new. It may be a cricket in the grass, or the colour of a changing leaf, an owl feather in the path, the exact way the light is catching a hilltop today. In changing light, familiar landscapes become new and surprising, although you have to spend a lot of time looking at the same landscape in different conditions to really appreciate and enjoy this.

There’s nothing wrong with craving novelty and excitement. However, there’s much to be gained from thinking carefully about how best to seek it. What kind of carbon footprint accompanies our walking footprints? The further we go in search of the exotic experience, the more expensive our experience is, in every sense. If we set out, Bilbo Baggins style and follow the path from our own front door, we build substantial relationships as we go. I think there’s something especially magical about being able to see a somewhat unfamiliar place in relation to one you know.

Every journey brings the potential for surprise. There is no knowing what waits around the next corner, and even in the most familiar locations, unfamiliar encounters may await. A tree may have come down, a fox may be crossing the path, an unexpected flower may be blooming.

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And very little happened

Being a Pagan blogger creates (for me at least) a certain amount of desire to come back with a good story. I was hoping to write about the lunar eclipse this morning. I sat out on a barrow above the Severn, I watched the sun set (as much as the clouds would allow) and I couldn’t even see the moon, much less any part of the eclipse. Today I do not get to write a blog about how beautiful and meaningful I found the night sky on Friday.

I also find this is often the way of it when I go somewhere more as a tourist than not. If I’m going somewhere once, or not very often, even if I feel like it’s pilgrimage, I’m always going to be mostly a tourist. It is daft to expect that I can rock up to a sacred site and have an off the peg, personal, meaningful experience.  It’s especially suspect if we think our experience as a tourist gives us more authority than someone who has lived near and worked with a site for a long time.

Landscapes reward relationship. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a famous historical monument there, or not. Landscapes reward people taking the time to get to know them. They reveal themselves slowly, over time. I think we need to be suspicious of anyone, and most especially ourselves, walking into an unfamiliar place and getting a big, dramatic revelation. Especially when the main impact of the revelation is to make the person having it look shiny and important.

When you’re working with intuition, and looking for magic, you have to be alert to what could be ego and imagination. You have to be alert to what you’re taking into a space and how that might colour your experience.  I think we also need to be alert to the ways in which talking about what we experience can create a form of spiritual inflation. If you’ve read a lot of woo-woo stories about other people’s amazing and dramatic spiritual encounters, will you feel comfortable saying that nothing happened to you? Or that a very small thing happened to you?

Coming down off the hill on Friday, I turned at the right point to see the moon, low over the hill and briefly free from cloud. Even so, the moon was partially obscured. What showed was large, low and yellowish. The eclipse had long passed. Off to the right, there was a planet and my little party was not sure whether this was Venus or Jupiter. Not knowing felt perfectly comfortable. I’m glad we saw the moon, and I wish we’d seen the eclipse in all its drama and beauty. But at the same time, the land desperately needed those clouds and the days of rain that followed. I watched the clouds coming up from the south and knew they were bringing much needed rain, and was glad to see them.

There is a power in showing up. There are things that happen when you keep showing up to places, open hearted and not expecting too much. There’s a process, and it leads to small wonders and a greater overall sense of the numinous. It doesn’t always lead to good stories or even to things that are easily put into words. There’s a lot to be said for being a person in relationship with the land and I think it’s better for us than focusing too much on stories that put us centre stage.


Mapping the contours

 

 

Human bodies are much like landscapes.

We have our contours and crevices,

Signs of weathering, history written

Into soil and skin alike.

 

Some of us are flat land formations

Others are complex, curving hillscapes

Verdant forested or marble smooth.

Clay and bone and watercourse.

 

The paces we are inhabiting

Inhabit us in turn, as we move

These bodies through localities, as the

Shape of them shapes or motions.

 

Human bodies are much like landscapes

Revealing to the patient lover

Taking time to know and to season.

Growing into new pleasures.

 

Do we scrabble hastily over

Each other’s surfaces in search of

Something we don’t even know to name

Or are we slow explorers, willing

Make our Journey a caress of feet,

Know line and lane, hair and tree.

 

Are we climbing hills to conquer them

Or taking leisurely routes, here and

There for the pleasure of knowing

Present and unpossessing.

 

Human bodies are much like landscapes.

We should enter knowingly, aware,

With tender hearts and no assumptions,

More inclined to give than take.

 

To honour and cherish what we find,

And let the landscapes of ourselves be

Changed, softened, even redeemed for us

Through our encounters.


Landscape, and fantasy landscape

I’m currently working on a Hopeless Maine novel. Most of the Hopeless Maine stuff I wrote years ago, but as the graphic novels will be coming out steadily from Sloth now, I feel it makes sense to get back into that setting and write more. In the time since I wrote my last Hopeless book, I’ve read a lot of landscape writing and this has had some considerable impact on me.

When I’m writing for the graphic novel of course much of the landscape stuff is down to Tom and the illustrations. It’s his island, he knows what it looks like. However, I’m working on a novel, so I have to do all the backgrounds myself! It’s really interesting putting to use what I’ve learned over years of reading landscape writing.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t like writing that focuses on viewing the scenery. It makes the person in the landscape into a tourist. I’m interested in ways of writing that place the person within the landscape, and that often comes down to how they interact in a bodily way with the place. It’s not just about looking, but moving through, smelling, tasting, touching, eating, and so forth.

In a novel, great reams of description can be dull and irrelevant and slow the story down, so I’m working to make the experience of landscape a key part of the story. It also gives me opportunities to have my characters interact with the strange creatures that inhabit the island. This in turn gives me chance to air another issue that is close to my heart – challenging the idea that human and nature are two separate states.

We’re got some decidedly fantastical things living on Hopeless Maine. In the graphic novels, they are mostly background and the stories are about people. I think that speaks to the way in which humans are so often oblivious to non-human things going on around them. But, I want to do something different with this

Reading landscape literature has changed how I think as an author of speculative and fantastical books. I’m only now finding out how that works because I’m using it. Fantasy fiction is so often seen as an escape from reality, but I’m seeing the scope to make it an act of re-engagement and re-enchantment.


Reflections on snow

This is the first winter when I’ve been able to enjoy snow. In the past, fear of falling has been a real problem – I fall easily at the best of times. Not having the right gear, and not having a warm home to come back to with places to dry wet things have also been issues – in various combinations at different times in my past. Being able to enjoy the snow is a privilege I’ve not had before, and I’ve felt it keenly.

Kit is essential. Sturdy, waterproof boots coupled with fell runner’s crampons keep me on my feet, and I’ve finally started to trust them. It takes a while to overcome fear. Thermal socks, waterproof trousers, a good, warm and waterproof coat. Thick gloves, warm hats, scarves and plenty of good layers for underneath. Now that we have a dehumidifier, coming in wet isn’t a problem and I can count on outer clothes drying overnight. These things make worlds of difference.

So, properly kitted up, I was out during the snow and able to engage more with the experience rather than just being assailed by anxiety and misery and risk.

Snow creates fantastic opportunities for tracking. We saw where the foxes had been. A heron had climbed out of the river, under the footbridge and onto the side of the canal. A cat had wandered down the side of the flat, thought better of it and turned back. Swans had walked down the canal, and we saw where one of the pair had broken through the ice and started opening a channel while the other had walked alongside it on the thicker ice. I’m no expert on tracking, but knowing what’s around normally makes it easier to figure out whose feet are whose.

We were out in the snow at night, with slush on the roads freezing into ice, and more snow falling. There were young humans out in the streets, playing and laughing, under-dressed and apparently unfussed. There were almost no cars – I was seeing them in motion at a rate of about six per hour, at times and places when normally the flow would be constant. The quiet was beautiful. Most people were tucked up inside, no doubt with televisions on and may have missed the eerie beauty of roads innocent of cars. We walked down the middles, danced about on a normally busy junction, because nothing was moving quickly and we could hear it coming from a considerable distance.

As the snow melted, the areas of compression stayed frozen for that bit longer. I was briefly treated to a map of animal paths along the banks beside the cycle path.

I find falling snow hypnotic, and the blanket whiteness hard on my eyes. There is something magical and uncanny about expanses of untouched snow, especially when it lies thick enough to change familiar contours into smoother, unfamiliar shapes. For a brief time, we inhabit other countries, where the colours, shapes and textures are not the same as where we came from. Snowflakes swirling under a street light like tiny fish in an ocean. Journeys written into the land in ways we normally can’t see. The familiar made treacherous and unpredictable.

Finally, for me, that familiar feeling from childhood of rejoicing as the colour comes back in. The great relief of green. The snow may be less of a problem for me, but I am still glad when it goes.


The power of local stories

In the last few weeks, I’ve read three books set close to where I live. Two – Mirror Dead, and The Axe the Elf and the Werewolf I’ll be reviewing next week. The third was a friend’s work in progress and you’ll have to wait for that one. I noticed, reading this trio, how affirming I find it reading fiction set in my own landscape.

As a child, I had some local folklore and tales about landscape features. I had some local history, but I didn’t have novels. The real action always seemed to be somewhere else. Adventure would mean leaving my place of origin; that much was clear. And now Dursley has The Dursleys, and that probably doesn’t help.

We need stories to show us unfamiliar things, to widen our view. However, we also need to see ourselves reflected, to be good enough to be part of a story, to know we are worth telling a tale about. Girls and women need to be more than prizes and motivators in male dominated stories (film industry, I am looking at you!). With over a hundred thousand new books published every year, there is clearly room for diversity. We need characters of different race, age, religion, sexual and gender identities, class and location.

The implications didn’t hit me until I read these three stories that are in part set in Gloucestershire. It gave me an enormous feeling of belonging. I felt affirmed. One of the books offered me bisexual and polyamorous characters as well, and even though they were guys, I felt deeply affirmed by their presence, too. I find monogamous, hetranormative romance alienating, and if I read too much of it, depressing. It is not easy to look at worlds where you do not exist.

A novel set in your immediate landscape is a chance to get excited about home. It’s an opportunity to see the land through someone else’s eyes, to see it anew and to be excited about it. Making your landscape into a location worthy of a tale elevates it. So many UK novels seem to be set around London, or non-specific places. Seeing the details of a town or city is much more engaging, seeing what I already know reflected back in a way that is unfamiliar, I can get really enthused.

It’s worth asking why some locations seem more worthy of stories than others. It may be the sense of anonymity. In a big city, anything can happen. Your story won’t run headlong into reality too often. And yet, a big city is a specific place full of real details and real people. It may accommodate a fictional addition or two, but something different happens when we impose our fantasy onto a setting rather than working with the setting. Neither is invalid, but the effects are different and it’s worth thinking about what happens to us as readers when encountering each of those.


Unspeakable Druidry

Unspeakable in the sense that I seldom have much idea how to explain it to anyone else. However, putting words to experiences is one of the things I think I’m for. My hope is that at some point I’ll understand enough of what I’m doing to be able to come back and talk about it coherently, but for now, it’s a case of trying to speak the unspeakable in the hopes that someone finds it at least a relevant signpost for their own journey.

Back when I read Celtic Buddhism (reviewed here) I had my first run in with Tibetan Bon, a tradition that has no formal practices. It is simply what happens to you as a consequence of how you live with the natural world. This chimed with me, and led me to realise that for some years now, my rather ephemeral and hard to pin down take on Druidry has been about me trying to do something similar.

When I first came to Druidry, I was all about study, meditation, visualisation and ritual. It was a very cerebral response to what I already knew about the seasons and the natural world. It’s been a process for me of recognising that when I work that way, I’m working with an abstract concept of nature inside my own head, not directly with anything else. To clarify, I know for some people, interior work means working directly with spirit, but for me it’s mostly not felt like that.

For some years now, what I think of as my Druidry has been solitary, although I can do it when other people are around. It’s about taking myself outside and encountering and being encountered. It has had the discernible effect of me seeing far more wildlife than I used to. It has meant developing a quality of presence that is alert to what’s around me, and open to it, but also involved in the narrative of the place and my history with it. I’m certainly not in the moment to the exclusion of all else, nor seeking to be. All the time I do this, I’m bodily learning – sounds, smells, movement, colours – information from the world around me that helps me know how to interpret other experiences. The sound of the bird connects to the shape of it and the shape of its flight and so forth.

I am changed by this, and not just in terms of what I know. I am changed, and no doubt have more changing to do in terms of who I am when I put my feet on the ground and move. I exist in relationship to a landscape and to others dwelling in this landscape. I feel a profound sense of connection, but beyond that, very little, and that may be significant too.

I do not come back from this with wisdom to rapidly transform your life. I do not have messages from the natural world that I must tell to people. I do not have secret knowledge, magical power, mystical authority or anything like that. I can’t even tell you with confidence what I think is happening when I do this, only that I know something is happening to me. I will never be able to teach this to people over an expensive weekend course. There are no exciting shortcuts to offer, and no easily explained benefits, just a quiet certainty on my part that this is the right thing for me to be doing. I may well need to spend a lot more years doing it before something properly speakable emerges.

There are consequences of being in the world in this way. Every time I go outside, there are moments of joy and wonder. I see, hear, smell and touch things, and am moved by them. I have a body knowledge of my landscape that comes from having moved through it so many times. I find being away harder. I find big groups of noisy people harder some days as well, because I don’t know how to tune them out. I do not feel adrift, lost, or out of synch any more. I know where I stand, in a very literal sense.


The Soil Never Sleeps – a review

This is a poetry collection like nothing I have ever read before, and I’ve read a fair amount of poetry over the years. Poet Adam Horovitz visited pasture farms through the seasons. There were four farms in different parts of the UK, and the visits were in spring, autumn, winter and then summer, which is reflected in the structure of the book. This is poetry that goes far beyond the usual picturesque treatments of landscape. This is nature writing that goes far beyond what nature writing normally does. Intense, personal, specific and powerful, this is a truly remarkable book and one of those rare texts I think everyone should read.

The pasture farms in question all seek to work in harmony with the land, the soil, the grass, and as a consequence these are landscapes full of wildlife as well as the sheep and cows the farms focus on. It’s a demonstration of what small scale, responsible animal rearing means. This was entirely beyond my experience, and I learned a lot in practical terms. We don’t have a pristine landscape untouched by humans here in the UK, we have a landscape informed by thousands of years of human activity – including grazing herds. It’s something that can be done well, and there are many species that have evolved to exist in our meadows and pastures, if we don’t force them out.

There’s nothing preachy about these poems. Adam tells stories of life on the land, creatures encountered, experiences in landscapes, stories of soil and grass and bramble. Those stories invite us to see the pasture in an entirely new way, and that’s really exciting. It’s an eye opener.

Adam is certainly one of my favourite poets. His work is lyrical, emotionally affecting (but never heavy handed) reflective, and engaging. He’s always accessible. You don’t need to have read anything else, or studied anything. I’ve been in the fortunate position of hearing some of these poems read out loud, and they can be absorbed in a single hearing. You don’t have to sweat over the page to make sense of them. At the same time, the poems reward repeat encounters, opening up to you as you revisit them, as a friend might. It’s beautiful work.

I really appreciated the way in which these poems are so absolutely specific to time and place, to people and to creatures who emerge from the text as distinct individuals. This isn’t nature as backdrop. Nor is it nature or landscape as some kind of metaphor for inner human experiences. These are songs of soil and sheep, of cows and seasons, and as they unfold, they teach you why it is not enough to see landscape as backdrop and wildlife as metaphor. It’s a powerful, magical act of re-enchantment and of re-engagement with the world.

Adam has a rare knack for taking the language of the every day and making it sing, putting depth and meaning into words we may have become complacent about. Showing us how our own, every day language might be imbued with grace and substance.

The final section of the poems is the most overtly political, reflecting on the poet’s experience of land and farming, and the wider world. I think that’s vital at the moment. We can’t separate the personal from the political, or the land from the lawmakers intent on ravaging is as a resource. It is so easy to get demoralised about these thing, but Adam chooses to uplift and inspire, and we need more of this.

Listen to a poem here – https://soundcloud.com/resoundradio2017/adam-horovitz-the-soil-never-sleeps 

Buy the book here (and other places!) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Soil-Never-Sleeps-Poems-Horovitz/dp/1911587056


A body in a landscape

One of the reasons I’ve not written a Pagan book in quite some time, is that my practice has changed and I didn’t want to over-intellectualise the process. I realised that I needed to get out there and try things without setting myself up to think that I was going to come back and write a book about it afterwards, and in terms of my personal spiritual journey, that’s been a really good thing. I don’t find this blog gets in the way, because there’s always stuff going on that I want to talk about.

I love words, language and communication. Which at first made it a bit odd for me wanting to go into something that wasn’t about words, and where the communication wasn’t about dealing with other humans.

It was an idea that occurred to me while working on the Pagan Pilgrimage project. I was going to write a book about that, but was finding the writing process getting in the way. I hit on a phrase – walking my body into the landscape and the landscape into my body, and beyond that statement, there was no real place for words. Mostly there still isn’t, although I’m getting to the point where I feel a bit more able to talk about what I’m doing.

Too often, the use of planned and ritualised language can actually take us away from the living moment and all that is happening in it. If we go in knowing what we’re going to say, our words get between us and our experiences. We make the spiritual experience about the inside of our own heads and not about any relationship with what’s outside our heads. Wordless and without so much agenda, there’s room for other experiences.

I’ve become interested in how sounds impact on my body. I’ve become alert to how the shifting patterns of sun and shade affect my mood when I’m walking. There are places I’ve walked often enough over a long enough time now that the shape of them, and the rhythm of moving over them is very much inside me. I don’t have much language for expressing this well. I’m not even sure I should be looking for such a language. Perhaps it is enough to offer wordy gateways, because any expressing of my experience, is only ever that, and what’s called for here is the first hand encounter between body and place.

We need to put ourselves back into the landscape. We need to stop treating landscape as a pretty background in which to do our exclusively human things. We need to get over the idea of scenery and into the idea of relationship. We need to show up, in our bodies, with our senses, and be places. Be part of places, involved with them, not casual users passing through. Not so locked into our human-centric concerns that we don’t see the wood, or the trees.

Things happen when you do this. Things that are not translatable into human words. Body knowledge and awareness. Felt things. We change, when we let the landscape inhabit us. It is a good change and I recommend exploring it.


Two Women Parted in a Wood – a poem

She tells me there’s no point without the view.

What to do?

For the clouds have come down round the hills,

With misty chills.

The Severn but a rumour, lost to sight

From this height.

No drama on the Cotswold Way she’ll find.

Declined.

Why even bother walking down this path?

 

She steps away to follow the track

A trudging form in a plastic mac,

She goes the way from whence I came

One path, but journeys not the same.

I saw the hillside, saw the mist,

The trees by early autumn kissed.

I heard the rain on dancing leaves

The song the wind in branches weaves.

I heard the barn owl and the crow

I noticed where the toadstools grow.

Where colours shine through drizzle’s grey

And joyful dogs come out to play.

I walked my path with cheerful heart

She would not walk it, will depart.

For what’s the point, without a view?

The walk’s a pointless thing to do.

 

Two women parted in a wood.

Both took the road most travelled by,

For that was not the difference.